Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Papal message of hope

Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, patriarch of the See of St Mark, tells Michael Adel that national unity rather than the Church is the main focus of terrorism


#Papal message of hope # Papal message of hope
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اقرأ باللغة العربية

You have been having health problems. Are you better?

I have had back pain for the last 30 years. Every once in a while the pain is intense but with rest and medication it subsides.


Is it true you are going to have surgery in the UK?

Not true. These are rumours circulated on social media.


During her visit to Egypt you told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the situation of Copts is improving. Yet many Copts are afraid because of terrorist attacks on churches and threats against them. How do you see the situation now?

The terrorist attacks aim to break Egypt’s national unity. Terrorists attack Egyptian Copts and Egyptians in the army and the police, the former because of their religion, the latter because they are the military. It is clear to everyone that terrorism aims to spread chaos and break national unity, which is Egypt’s strength.


But the situation is still bad for Copts…

It is not as bad as some claim. If we compare the conditions of Copts with earlier times you will find that they are getting better. There used to be two or three Copts in parliament, now there are 39 MPs under the dome. Legislation regulating the building of churches, which did not see the light of day for many years, has become law. The same goes for the legalising of unlicensed churches. And lest we forget, the state participates in all religious celebrations. Nor will we forget President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to the Cathedral to attend Christmas Eve mass. This had never happened before. All these are indications that suggest the situation is improving.

Yet despite these indications many Copts are worried about the threats being directed at them and fear their rights are being overlooked.

We have to admit that there are some who suffer from fanaticism, ignorance and hatred. I always demand that the law and the constitution be applied to all Egyptians, with no exceptions. Applying the law, combined with spreading awareness, will help us overcome these ailments.


Are you optimistic that the law will be applied without exceptions?

Absolutely. Otherwise Egypt will not rise. It is unjust for the law to be applied selectively. God does not tolerate injustice.


How can Egypt combat terrorism?

Extremist groups speak in terms of religion but they have very different goals. These groups are evil, they seek to threaten the safety of people. Tourism has been greatly affected by the latest wave of terrorist attacks.


The whole world has condemned the targeting of Egyptian churches. What do you think about terrorists targeting the Church?

Terrorism doesn’t target the Church, it targets the whole country. This is why Egypt has bid farewell to so many martyrs.

Egypt is the country of safety, blessed with the visit of the Holy Family. It is the wrong understanding of religion that creates terrorism. Egyptians, by nature, are peaceful, but for the sake of unity and national harmony we are all soldiers in the battle against terror. Unity is the strongest way to end violence.


What do you think about those, in Egypt and abroad, calling for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Egyptians are not willing to reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood. At the end of the day it is up to the country’s political leadership to decide. What I am certain of is that Egyptians have uncovered the face of the groups which spread extremism, hatred and wreak revenge on innocent souls.


When you meet with officials abroad what do you tell them about the Egyptian Church?

I always tell them that the Egyptian Church is an extension of the Pharaonic civilisation and stood tall for seven centuries before the advent of Islam in Egypt. Hence, the amazing harmony between Pharaonic, Christian and Islamic civilisations. We, Christians and Muslims, live together in peace and harmony. We share social relationships, a history of mutual understanding and cooperation. We share the same joys and pains. We live by the River Nile, the father of Egyptians, the land being our mother. From time to time, however, problems ensue as a result of poverty, ignorance and extremism. Together with the state, the Church tries to solve these problems in the name of the unity of the Egyptian family.


Some Western countries demand greater respect for human rights, especially in Egypt. What do you think of these demands?

The West treats human rights as a “fashion”. The West never upholds the rights of the poor in Egypt though it should. Egypt has 30 million people imprisoned behind the bars of poverty.


What do you do when you are angry?

You need to stay calm in order not to take wrong decisions. At times of anger one should exercise self-control or else we’ll find ourselves moving in the dark and the ship will sink. Every word and action must be calculated. I always put the safety of the country, the Church and the people first. This is my priority when it comes to taking decisions. I always resort to prayer and a calm retreat in order to reach the right decision.


Many Copts are endeavouring to leave the country. Do you think they are trying to escape?

Emigration is a personal decision, and every case is different. But I am confident that Egypt’s future will be better and brighter. There are indications to confirm my confidence. An emigrant thinks he is moving to a more comfortable place when in fact he travels to the unknown.


But young people have aspiration…

If young people decide to work hard in their country they will succeed. Egypt’s youth will have a good future in their country if they work hard. They would be better setting up small projects that grow with time than moving to a country where the future is unknown.


Some young people say hell abroad is better than Egypt’s heaven. What do you think?

This is utterly false. Whoever says this doesn’t know what hell and heaven are.


But there are moves to empty the Middle East of Christians…

This is a catastrophe for the whole world. We must not forget that Christianity was born in the Middle East. God wanted religions to be in the Middle East.

I hope things are going to be better for Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya.


How do you react to death threats? Are you afraid of assassination?

No. I believe that life is in the hands of God. That is all I think about.


Claims that there are weapons in churches and monasteries have been exposed as lies. But it is true that weapons now protect churches…

A church is a house of prayer and there are no weapons in churches as some claim. It is acceptable, though, for security forces to safeguard churches from the outside. It is a situation that is going to last for a while, and it is for the safety of Copts.


Is a priest allowed to hold a weapon to defend himself?

Absolutely not. This is completely unacceptable.


What do you think of Israel’s infringement on the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

As a Church we denounce this infringement. On the political and on the human level it is unacceptable. We are surprised at these political actions which result in extremism and hatred towards religions.

What is the solution?

Everyone knows Israel tries to provoke Palestine and wants to control the everyday life of Palestinians. It is the duty of the Arab and international communities to stop these provocative acts and interfere for the sake of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the protection of Palestinian civilians.


Do you fear for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Coptic properties in Israel?

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is under the protection of God. We are not afraid of Israel.


Did Israel ever try to buy Egyptian Church property in Jerusalem?

This has never happened. There aren’t many Coptic properties in Jerusalem and those that are are full of priests and nuns.


But every once in a while problems arise.

This is normal. Such problems didn’t arise today.


Why doesn’t the Church allow travel to Jerusalem?

We will not officially allow Copts to travel to Jerusalem. Permission to go to the Holy Land is granted on specific conditions.


Which are?

If it is a mission to serve the congregation in the church in Jerusalem. We also allow the elderly and sick who seek blessings.


But some will ask you why abandon our rights in Jerusalem?

After the 1967 War the Holy Synod, under Pope Kirollos VI, banned Copts from travelling to Jerusalem. The decision remained effective during the time of Pope Shenouda, and still stands.


Some doubt the Miracle of the Holy Fire on Holy Sunday…

Beyond doubt the miracle is real. Ask those who have seen it with their own eyes. Those who want to doubt it are free to do so.


Is the Egyptian Church seeking a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to maintain national unity and fight terrorism?

It is not true. The Church does not seek prizes.


Will you support President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi if he runs for a second term?

The presidential elections are not due yet. We don’t know who will stand against Al-Sisi. Whether to support him or not will become clear at election time.


Do you expect strong candidates to run against Al-Sisi?

There have to be strong candidates with political weight. We remember the previous presidential elections, there were strong candidates and Al-Sisi won. Let’s not rush to conclusions.


What is your relationship with President Al-Sisi?

I have known him since he was minister of defence. We participated together in the 30 June declaration and together we witnessed the joy of millions of Egyptians. We have had many meetings. During one, he met 13 heads of churches. This has never happened before. I like to meet him on different national occasions and I always follow his activities and statements.

He is a man who puts God forward in every decision he takes. The leader who does that is a successful leader. The other thing I noticed about him is that he works hard and with determination. He is constantly thinking about the future of our country. He is a man of deeds, not words.

Why did you postpone your visit to the United States?

I received an invitation from the bishop of Melbourne to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Egyptian Church in Australia. I was also invited by Sydney’s bishop to inaugurate the first Egyptian Coptic church in Japan. I also received an invitation to Germany to attend a conference about Middle East Christians. The visit to the US was going to be crammed between these other visits so I put it off for a few months.


You always dreamed of visiting Russia. Is it because it is an Orthodox country?

Of course not. Since I was young I have been infatuated with Russian literature. I read the books of Tolstoy and I followed USSR officials’ visits to Egypt on television. I was impressed by Laika the space dog and Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut. All these things made me excited about visiting Russia and getting to know more about it.


When you met Russian President Vladimir Putin, what did he tell you about Egypt?

It was a very good meeting. Putin is a fine, strong politician. He told me he loved Egypt and had been calling on Russians to visit Egypt. He assured me that Egypt will win its war on terror under the leadership of President Al-Sisi whom he respects very much.


For the past 33 years the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Roman Catholic Church have been engaged in a theological dialogue but so far nothing has been agreed upon. Why?

It’s been a very long time, I agree. Though there was a gap in the dialogue it resumed 15 years ago. I believe something will emerge from these dialogues. We are seriously working on it.


Millions of Christians around the world dream of church unity. Do you?

We all pray “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. We have to have hope church unity can be achieved.

Young people represent the Church’s future. Now you have begun to communicate with them directly on social media networks.

Communicating with the young on social media, especially on Facebook, is a positive thing and I like it a lot.

It was not planned, it was a coincidence. I have had a Facebook account since 2009 but because of my responsibilities and tight schedule I didn’t have time for it. Two months ago I started sifting through my timeline and posting whatever I felt was going to benefit others. I received positive feedback so I started meeting young people on Facebook. This is a good way to communicate with the young. I want to know about their problems and aspirations.


Will the Church allow second marriages? Who will be granted remarriage licences?

The Church will study petitions case by case. When presented with a case the court will not examine the reasons for separation. Separation may lead one of the parties to sin. We’ve seen it happen many times before, especially when the separation lasts for years. We have to look not at the reasons for separation, but into the concept of separation.

For example, an employer scolds an employee, the employee scolds his wife who in turn scolds her daughter. The daughter kills the cat. In the end the child is the murderer but the truth is each of them is responsible, including the employer. In the case of marriage, because one party goes away the other may err. This requires the break-up of the marriage.


Will the law apply to all denominations?

Each denomination will have its own article in the law but 90 per cent of the law will comprise general guidelines agreed upon unanimously. In court, the judge will resort to the laws of the denomination under which the marriage contract was written. This way every denomination applies its own articles.


Where does the Church stand on atheism?

The media has affected young people. It all started with television, a device which controls people’s lives and invades their privacy. It has led to the distortion of human nature. The appearance of atheism, gay marriage, Satanism, the selling of women and children, human trafficking, smuggling weapons, drugs and chasing after fashion is the result. All this has led humanity to collapse.

It is the role of religious institutions and the media to protect morality and restore humanity. I advise young people to hold on to the institution of the Church, to follow the commandments, fully comprehend the family and live virtuously within it.

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